1. Be very clear about the problem, the solution and the barriers to getting there
Compile strong and compelling evidence; gather data and facts and check them thoroughly. Remember your case must stand up to scrutiny by experts. Back up claims with expert opinion if possible. Avoid exaggeration or misrepresenting research findings to press your case. Nothing will ruin your efforts at getting the MP to take up your case more than being given false or incomplete information. It is also useful to be prepared for the counter arguments (eg. it would cost too much or be too difficult) and have an answer to these.
The solution should be focussed and practical, preferably with precedents, and shown to be a good fit with the government’s agenda.
2. Be strategic
Choose your issue based on considered criteria, for instance, whether it might be an easy first win, whether it will deliver the greatest benefit, whether you have public opinion onside or one where the solution is very clear and do-able. Consider long and short term objectives of your campaign.
Package the information to suit your target MP (which you can usually find out by talking with their staff) and avoid lengthy and irrelevant material. A short summary with clear recommendations, sources of data, links and references is usually preferred.
It is rarely productive to just meet with as many MPs as you can and different approaches will be necessary for a government backbencher, an opposition shadow minister or an MP from a minor party.
You might consider approaching the cross bench or the opposition only after you have exhausted your appeal to the government.
You may need to ‘circle’ your target (particularly if it is the minister) from a range of entry points using other MPs, personal contacts, other organisations, shared interest groups etc. Draw up an ‘influence map’ to help capture this information.
Consider how you can minimise the influence of opponents of your proposal in your pitch.
3. Understand the political context
- Research the policy or election platforms of the political parties, search Hansard for speeches and questions on notice and look up ministerial websites for mentions of your issue to find out where they stand on your issue. Use OpenAustralia.org to get instant reports of mentions in the parliament on your issue.
- Check if your issue has been canvassed previously in parliamentary inquiries and if so note the recommendations, identify any differences in views through dissenting reports and examine the government response – all of which can be found on the Federal Parliament website under Senate and HoR committees.
- Make sure your approach to members of parliament is coordinated, eg know if the organisation you represent has approached your target previously and let them know at the outset that you already have this information. Keep good records of contacts and what was said and promised.
- Don’t waste time preaching to the converted!
- Know where the jurisdictional responsibility for your issue rests and be prepared for the buck passing, eg ‘….that’s a state government issue’.
Ideally, you will get a chance to lobby the decision-maker, usually the minister. However if this is not possible you might look for political players who have some influence and/or are likely to be interested in helping. Parliamentary secretaries or members of backbench or standing committees of parliament dealing with your area would be better informed and more motivated to assist.
The Federal Senate has more opportunities than the HoR for quizzing government and cross bench Senators are generally less constrained than those in government or opposition when it comes to using mechanisms available to them in the parliament
4. Understand what your MP can do in the parliament for you, eg
- Make a speech in the parliament. Having the issue on the public record (on Hansard) may be a useful tool in spreading the word to others and it will be an attractive option to your MP if you undertake to circulate it widely, put it on the website, etc.
- Approach the relevant minister on your behalf. Government backbenchers will probably be best placed to do this. You could ask others to write letters to the minister.
- Put questions on notice to the Minister. This is a relatively simple but effective mechanism at getting attention to the issue within the minister’s department and may elicit useful information. It will go on the Hansard too so can be circulated, as can the answer when it comes (The Government has 30 calendar days to answer questions on notice although rarely does since the sanctions are not very effective.)
- Put questions without notice during parliament. A less attractive option if you want a proper answer but the press pays more attention so could be useful in raising awareness
- Put up a motion. This option is easier in the Senate where there is no limit on the number of motions. Motions are voted on but not debated. Government Senators generally don’t put up motions unless they are uncritical of government. The advantage of motions is that they are brought to the attention of the minister who invariably decides on how government senators vote.
- A Senate (or HoR) inquiry. This is a big ask because it requires the agreement of the whole Senate and commits Senators to an enormous amount of effort and time but is a highly effective means of bringing big issues to the fore.
- A Parliamentary Support Group. Difficult to establish and not always effective; depends a lot on the issue.
5. Use people’s real life experiences
The stories of direct experience in working with those most affected by the issue give your case legitimacy and can be persuasive and memorable, in person or as case studies in your documentation.
6. Never give up!
Your issue will almost certainly not be resolved with one contact. Have a follow up strategy which may include reminding your MP to take the agreed action or moving to another action.
Campaigning often requires a long term commitment, careful monitoring of progress (including good records of contacts made and outcomes to avoid embarrassing duplications or mixed messages) and follow up. You may need to deploy different and innovative tactics to keep the issue alive and noticeable. A more confrontational approach may work if progress is slow.
7. An exit strategy
Plan ahead so you are clear what your response will be if you are successful or only partly so. How will you respond to promises as opposed to results?
Don’t forget to say thanks - you might be surprised at how often this doesn’t happen. Acknowledging your MP’s efforts, eg in your newsletter or by participating in your media event is in your interests because he or she will be more inclined to do more on your issue in future.
Author: Lyn Allison, former Victorian Senator for the Democrats.